Major League Baseball is threatening to destroy 42 minor league teams, and none of its reasons for doing so are any good.
Minor League Baseball, known as MiLB, is the level where nearly every future big-league player is developed, making it a vital piece of the baseball hierarchy in America. Minor league teams not only feed the MLB teams with which they’re affiliated, they also create thousands of jobs for smaller baseball-friendly communities across the nation, such as Lowell, Massachusetts, or more remote, otherwise baseball-less locales such as Burlington, Vermont, or Keizer, Oregon.
Minor league teams are what truly allows the sport to be considered the “national pastime,” as it manages to make the game national.
So far, we’ve heard MLB’s reasoning for shrinking the minors, we’ve heard some Minor League teams respond, and we’ve even witnessed members of Congress get in on the discussion with a disapproving letter and a task force. But we haven’t heard from the players themselves. What do the players, who lack a seat at the table in all of these discussions, think of the potential loss of more than 1,000 jobs, of severing the connection between MLB and 42 communities, and of their desire for a fair wage being repaid with the loss of a quarter of their jobs?
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The initial reason for shrinking the minors, both in reporting by Baseball America and via MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, is “inadequate facilities.” Garrett Broshuis, a former minor league player with the Giants who is known for both his attempts to unionize MiLB players and his role as a lawyer representing players in a class-action lawsuit seeking unpaid wages, Senne v. MLB, believes this is an excuse “to try to push through a cost-saving measure.”
Broshuis is not alone in feeling this way. An active minor league player (who will remain anonymous to protect his identity) also believes the facilities could use a boost, but that shuttering teams isn’t the way to make it happen. “These MiLB teams are massively profitable in many cases for their owners, and they sink very little of that money back into facilities for players. There ought to be accountability for an organization to give back to the players that earn them their money,” he said.
In fact, players expecting to be paid for the value they create is the real reason behind MLB’s push; it’s using an effort by players to receive fair wages as an excuse to cut costs elsewhere and hurt smaller communities with minor league teams, all in the name of boosting profits a little bit.
In 2018, MLB successfully lobbied Congress to limit the pay of minor league players — who are paid by the major league teams themselves — to the federal minimum wage, and just 40 hours per week in-season. Even though players work more like 60-70 hours per week, they receive no overtime, and also are not paid for spring training, the postseason, or the offseason.
Understandably, there was backlash to MLB’s limiting minor-league salaries to as low as $290 for 40 hours of work, as the league’s lobbying to codify awful living and working conditions was brought to the attention of many fans who were otherwise unaware. So now, you have commissioner Manfred saying 42 teams need to be disaffiliated so that MLB teams can increase minor league pay for the remaining players, as if it’s an either/or proposition for an industry that rakes in $10 billion annually.
The reality is that paying every single minor league player an average of $50,000 per year would cost MLB teams $7.5 million. With $10 billion in revenue pouring in annually, that’s pocket change. It’s the salary of a single year of a good relief pitcher.
Kyle Johnson, another former minor leaguer, played with three of the teams on the disaffiliation list: the Orum Owlz, Burlington Bees, and Binghamton Rumble Ponies. He pointed out that the Toronto Blue Jays already increased pay for players at the lower levels, and haven’t gone broke in the process.
“The Blue Jays have shown that the model works: they’re not bankrupt, they’re not in trouble, and every single one of those guys in the Blue Jays’ organization is extremely thankful and not as stressed as I was every two weeks waiting for my paycheck when the $400 ran out,” he said. “The model can work, it can work at every single level MLB has right now.”
While the Jays’ decision to raise pay was an admirable one, by doubling player salaries they raised poverty-level wages to, well, slightly higher poverty-level wages. This is the kind of thing that happens when the players don’t have a seat at the table, and precisely why MLB is advocating for higher minor league pay now: The league can do it on its own terms, while squeezing the owners of Minor League Baseball teams for more money and concessions.
– Garrett Broshuis
“That’s the root of the problem,” says Broshuis. “They’re talking about cutting 1,000 minor-league jobs here, and you’re talking about doing it without giving the players a voice at all. The players need a voice at the bargaining table, they need to be represented, and it’s quite unfortunate that they don’t have a voice right now. There are other examples out there of minor league players with representation, like minor league hockey has a union, and in truth those players are treated much better than MiLB players.”
Broshuis isn’t exaggerating about how much better Pro Hockey Player Association players are treated than Minor League Baseball ones: the average salary of a PHPA member in the American Hockey League — the National Hockey League’s Triple-A equivalent — is around $118,000, while the minimum is $50,000. The per diem, too, is about three times what MiLB’s players receive to feed themselves. The NHL does not pull in the kind of revenue MLB does — it has never cracked $5 billion as a league — and yet it has managed to survive while treating players like human beings.
Players are also concerned about what cutting off local communities from affiliated ball will do to the growth of the game. Johnson pointed out that staying with host families who were “super engaged with the teams” was a highlight for him. Broshuis pointed out that teams like his first aren’t located anywhere near other pro ball. “If you deprive those fans of baseball, they just aren’t going to go to a game. That’s a lot of kids that aren’t exposed to baseball games, and if you want to grow the game, and want your fan base to be young, then you would think you would want to continue to provide opportunities for kids to go to games like they do at the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes,” he said.
“On the fan side, cutting down on the minor league levels hurts every party involved. It cuts down fan bases across the country, it concentrates baseball in major cities, which hurts the nationwide appeal of the game,” said the active anonymous player. “For many people, it means they won’t get to see an affiliated baseball game live. It makes no sense for MLB teams to cut down on farm systems, in both the short and long term.”
MLB doesn’t care about any of this, though. And that’s a shame for the players, the fans, and for the future of professional baseball in America, too.